Superstar dancer Sylvie Guillem has come full circle.
As the ballerina extraordinaire explained before the upcoming grand finale of her 35-year career, “The first time I took a plane to dance in front of an audience outside France was when I was in the Paris Opera Ballet School, and we flew to Japan. And now I finish here, back where I started.”
The curtain will come down on the Guillem era with two productions: “Life In Progress” in Tokyo and then “Final,” which tours nationwide before the last-ever performance, which is at Kanagawa Kenmin Hall in Yokohama on Dec. 30.
As she explained in a recent phone interview with The Japan Times, “I started in Japan, started to discover other worlds and cultures through the people of Japan when I was only 15.
“It was such a huge shock for me intellectually that it triggered something in me. It dramatically changed my view on things and it was a very important moment in my life, in how I would build myself later on.”
On stage, that teenager soon built herself into the world’s greatest dancer. A technical prodigy who astonished with her supple control, at age 19 in 1984, she was named the Paris Opera Ballet’s youngest-ever etoile (star) by its director, the legendary Rudolf Nureyev.
Offstage, she astounded with her great will. After five years as the French company’s top-ranking artist, she left to become principal guest artist at the Royal Ballet in London — causing political uproar at home, while her feuds with Sir Kenneth MacMillan, principal choreographer at the Royal Ballet, are the stuff of legend.
This Paris native, however, redefined ballet with her precisely controlled physical prowess and ventures into contemporary dance and experimental theater as an associate artist of London’s Sadler’s Wells Theatre since 2006.
Now aged 50, she bows out, decisively, on her terms, defining her career with Zen eloquence.
“Basically, it is all part of a process, the highlight being the moment on stage when I am presenting and offering what I have been working on for many months or weeks,” she explained.
“That is the strongest moment; you are working, imagining, sharing, doubting, sweating for that moment, and that one moment is so special.
“I am giving it to someone as a gift, putting all my heart and thought into it and, of course, when the one receiving the gift likes it, the moment is even more rewarding. It’s real happiness.”
Now, she pointed out, her goodbye tour recognizes the people who shaped the path of her orbit.
“I wanted creation to be part of the program. It was, in a way, a homage or thank you to those choreographers whom I think were important for me in my career.
“So automatically that includes (long-time German-resident American) William Forsythe, who has been from the beginning an important engine; while (Swede) Mats Ek is referenced not with a new creation, but “Bye,” because it is so much adapted to this situation and it is a solo I really love and I couldn’t imagine the program without this piece and without Mats.”
Guillem next turned to “a younger set of choreographers,” naming Russell Maliphant and Akram Khan, two British contemporary masters whose collaborations ushered in her successful transition to contemporary dance.
“They were both a very important bridge in my building of the house that I am,” she said. “Both ‘Sacred Monsters’ (her 2006 joint work with Khan) and ‘Push’ (Maliphant’s 2005 work for them both) were works I learned a lot from and really enjoyed. So I wanted both those artists to be on board with me for this last trip.”
Guillem then identified some key turning points in her career, starting with Nureyev in Paris.
“It was the most fantastic thing that could happen to any young dancer,” she declared. “He arrived and gave us young dancers the motivation (and) the opportunity to prove what we had to prove and to start, early on, to learn from our mistakes.
“Because of Rudolf, we had Bill Forsythe and (avant-garde American theater-artist) Robert Wilson, so he also gave a different vision of what art could be and all the possibility that was there to discover and experience.”
Crediting also the Royal Ballet, she said, “I learned a lot through their theatrical approach and the dramatic implications with which they imbue the stagings (and) I really liked the passion there.”
Guillem was fulsome, too, about Sadler’s Wells, saying, “Sadler’s offered me freedom to collaborate with many choreographers, and started many great experiences and creations with (Canadian playwright, actor and director) Robert Lepage and Russell and Akram and Mats.”
In addition, she pointed to one influence she will remember especially here in Japan: (French dancer, choreographer and opera director) Maurice Bejart (1927-2007).
“He was the first choreographer who created something for me at the Paris Opera. We had a daughter-father relationship that was really beautiful.”
To celebrate that relationship, the “Final” tour features “Bolero,” a work Bejart created for her and the Tokyo Ballet, with whom they both had a long relationship.
Before her final curtain call, though, Guillem shared a heartfelt confession, saying, “I think the only regret I have is not to have opened my eyes sooner to aspects of life like the relationship of man with nature and animals … maybe if I had opened my eyes a little bit before, I would have been able to help even more.
“Each time I went to the theater in Europe, I would try to invite different organizations or associations to open their eyes, and people reacted a lot.
“I can see that talking about things is sometimes enough for people to realize they also can do something about it. Traveling a lot and being able to talk to journalists and to a large number of people, I would have been able to do a lot more. But as we say — ‘Better late than never.’ ”
Finally, this towering presence in the dance world disclosed how, of all things, the tiny colibri (hummingbird) is such an inspiration to her and “will be a part of what I do from now on.”
To explain why, she cited “a little story that is a legend of the (American) Indians and is very, very important for me” — a story she shared as follows:
“A forest is on fire and all the animals are running away, escaping the flames, except this one little bird, the smallest bird in the forest, called a colibri. This colibri is going everywhere she can to find a drop of water. She flies back and spits it on the fire, and then dashes out again to find another drop of water, spits that tiny drop onto the raging flames and flies out again to find water.
“Some animals stop and say, ‘What are you doing? You’re crazy, you must escape with us.’
And the colibri says: ‘I am doing my part.’ ”
“Life in Progress” runs Dec. 16-20 at Tokyo Bunka Kaikan. “Final” runs Dec. 9-30 at venues nationwide. For details, visit www.nbs.or.jp.